Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Essay on Edward II

Edit: This is now the second draft of my essay on Edward II, for the course The Mediaeval Body at Melbourne University. The inspiration came from a post by Alianore, and she was also kind enough to point me to a few very useful sources - thank you!

Still a little editing and proof-reading to do, of course, but it's much tidier than it was. And, of course, I need to double-check everything to make sure I'm not entirely misrepresenting what actually happened. Since I'm not used to writing history essays (I'm usually more of a literature person), this is all an exciting and unfamiliar process for me.

To that end, those of you who have spent a good deal more time than I have studying Edward, feel free to tell me where I've gone wrong, in large ways or small!


The rise of queer and gender criticism has led to a tendency to regard certain historical figures and events primarily from that point of view. Reinterpreting the reign of Edward II in the light of these critical views does help us to understand certain aspects of his life. However, it is possible to overstate this angle, to use suggestive phrases in the later chronicles to reconstruct the story of the barons’ objections to Gavaston and Despenser as a protest against transgressive sexual relations with the monarch. There are, in fact, very few hints that his relationships with Gavaston and Despenser were perceived as sexual in nature prior to 1326, or even the question was considered particularly important. It was not until Isabella and Mortimer invaded England that these accusations began to circulate. The propaganda used to involve the populace in deposition and the resulting popular perception of Edward used sodomy as an allegory for other kinds of transgressive behaviour. He had disrupted public order, the tiers of rank and the natural flow of the economy, largely to aid his favourites. In doing so, he had subverted the accepted social metaphor of the king as head of his country, the man as head of his wife. The graphic imagery of Edward’s body as subject and object of the realm’s disorders multiplied in the wake of his deposition to retrospectively narrate the country’s experience. His undeniable weakness as a monarch, together with depictions like Geoffrey le Baker’s chronicle and Marlowe’s play, encouraged later generations to characterise him as a sodomitical rex inutile – the perfect subject for enthusiastic re-examination by proponents of queer criticism. But whether Edward’s relationships with Gavaston and Despenser contained a sexual element is not, ultimately, historically important. What is beyond doubt is the strength of Edward’s emotional attachment to each of these men, and it is that, together with contemporary perceptions of these relationships, that had the greatest effect on events.

Piers Gavaston: hot-headed young Gascon knight, doubtless devilishly handsome, exiled by Edward I to keep him away from the future king, recalled three months later as soon as the old king died, far preferred by Edward II to his mere wife, recipient of lavish gifts by the king (including the earldom of Cornwall), denied nothing he asked for, with a habit of swaggering about the court and giving the other earls insulting nicknames, exiled twice more at the insistence of the earls, recalled each time by Edward, finally arrested and murdered on the orders of the most powerful earl in the country, leaving his corpse unburied for years as Edward swore revenge on his dear friend’s murderers – it has all the ingredients of the best star-crossed love stories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the earls were acting out of homophobia or righteous defence of a neglected queen. Despite elaborately public displays of affection, in defiance of his father and the opinion of his court, contemporary records have left us no whisper of sodomy. On returning to England with his new bride early in 1308, Edward’s first action on disembarking is said to have been an enthusiastic and demonstrative greeting of Gavaston, kissing and embracing him in front of the crowd, his young wife and her royal brothers and uncles1. The same man received the most prominent role in his coronation (dressed in royal purple and pearls, “non regis sed gloriam propriam quaerens”, according to the Annales Paulini (262)), Edward’s constant attention throughout the coronation feast, and all Edward’s wedding gifts – even those from his bride’s father, the king of France (AP 262)2. Not surprisingly, Isabella’s brothers are said to have stood up, shouted angrily at Edward and stormed out of the hall. Within four months the English barons had forced Gavaston back into exile. By anyone’s standards, this is a gross failure of tact and international diplomacy, and the reactions of the French representatives and English earls are understandable even if they read the relationship as remaining emotionally within the bounds of normal male-male friendship.

Most of the evidence from the earlier part of Edward II’s reign suggests the earls’ quarrel with Gavaston was on quite different grounds – not least the insulting nicknames. The official records of the Articles against Gavaston in 1308 and the Ordinances of 1311 agree with the Vita in their assessment of Gavaston. The Articles state that he “disinherits the crown... puts discord between the king and his people, and he draws to himself the allegiance of men by as stringent an oath as does the king, thereby making himself the peer of the king and so enfeebling the crown” (English Historical Documents 526). The twentieth Ordinance accuses him of “drawing to himself royal power and dignity”, and goes into more detail about specific acts of offence, such as “causing blank charters under the great seal of the king to be sealed to the deceit and disinheritance of the king and of his crown” (EHD 532). These documents are, by their nature, unlikely to contain more than veiled allusions to a suspected sexual relationship, but that isn’t really an issue. The extensive list of objections to Gavaston shows just how destructive his relationship with Edward was perceived to be in the public sphere. There was no need for the earls to turn to the private sphere to explain the necessity to be rid of Gavaston. In fact, the first sentence of the Articles explains the political advantage of dwelling on the public, judicial failures of the king:

Homage and the oath of allegiance are more in respect of the crown than in respect of the king’s person and are more closely related to the crown than to the king’s person; and this is evident because, before the crown has descended to the person, no allegiance is due to him. (EHD 525)

Having described the objections to Gavaston and the dilemma that results when the king, as head of the judicial system, is partial and “will not right a wrong”, the articles conclude that “he cannot be judged or attainted by an action brought according to law, and therefore... the people rate him as a man attainted and adjudged, and pray the king that... he will accept and execute the award of the people” (EHD 526). In this way, the disastrous effect of Gavaston’s influence over Edward was turned to advantage, allowing “the people” (a euphemism for the barons, at this stage) to concoct distinctions between the traditional ‘two bodies’ of the king, deny the authority of his mere physical manifestation and take matters into their own hands.
Chronicle and other evidence suggests that the public perception of the situation was a simplified version of the barons’ understanding. The Vita Edwardi Secundi - almost certainly written before 1326, and so not coloured by knowledge of those events - suggests that the reason Gavaston was universally hated was twofold: arrogance, and monopolising the king’s ear (Vita 27-29). Less analytical, the Annales Paulini gives a similar picture but attributes Gavaston’s unpopularity to events such as the Wallingford tournaments, rather than breaking these events down into ongoing frictions (AP 259). Even allowing for the unmentionable nature of sodomy, it seems that at this point the barons did not need that string in their bow, with the result that there were no widely known rumours about Edward’s sexuality.

When Piers Gavaston threw his weight about, it affected the nobility. When Hugh Despenser started to throw his about, it affected all of England. More ambitious than Gavaston, more ruthless, unquestionably more cruel, Despenser “wretchedly disinherited many, forced some into exile, extorted unjust ransoms from many, [and] collected a thousand pounds’ worth of land by means of threats” (Vita 195). He was canny at accumulating money, but neither he nor Edward had the knack of spending it well. The economic distress of the country, coupled with Edward’s extravagance in spending money on himself and his friends, eventually prompted the pope to write urging financial moderation and care (Saaler 89-90). During this period, all of Edward I’s advances into Scotland were lost to the determined leadership of Robert Bruce, who also took over much of Ireland. Powicke points out the emphasis on military failures in the reasons given for Edward’s deposition. The seriousness of this in mediaeval notions of kingship is suggested by warrior-saint allegories like Lydgate’s story of St Edmund, whose virginity – ie, the preservation of the integrity of his physical body – was closely linked with his military success, and therefore his ability to maintain the analogous integrity of England (Lewis). Law and order deteriorated, even as Edward and the Despensers tightened their hold on the upper levels of society in order to maintain their position. The beginning of famine can hardly have helped. In a society whose belief system included the image of the king as figurative head of the country, and a vengeful God not averse to punishing the whole body for the sins or inadequacies of that head, the universal human instinct to blame authority figures for crises must have manifested itself even more strongly than usual.

The rebellion and subsequent call for Edward’s deposition were handled with a keen eye to public support. Isabella’s mourning weeds, her care to keep her adulterous relationship with Mortimer out of sight and to identify her cause with that of Lancaster (Thomas of Lancaster, killed in 1322 for rising against Edward and Despenser, was now widely regarded as a saint), to visit shrines as she travelled “quasi peregrinando” (AP 314), to stay on the right side of the populace and to present herself as a rejected wife anxious to save the country and set her son on his rightful throne, formed masterful and effective propaganda. It was now, as it became necessary to engage the people in the momentous business of overthrowing and deposing an inadequate king, that the metaphor of sodomy became a useful shorthand for other forms of cultural transgression. Ormrod hints that it also worked to obscure Isabella’s own contraventions of marital and gender rules – usurping royal power with her lover – by laying similar charges against Edward (Ormrod 27). The idea of Despenser subverting the proper relationship between the king and his lawful wife, first invoked by Isabella when she refused to return from France on Edward’s command (Vita 243), was repeated in various speeches and proclamations. The judgement on Hugh Despenser, for example, is a long catalogue of abuses of power, containing several references to “notre treshonurable dame la Roigne”, and the “descord” Despenser had created between her and her husband as well as “entre notre seignour le Roie et entre les autres gentz du Roialme”, to the “grant deshonur de lui et de son people” (Holmes 265-7).

Even at this time, however, the focus of criticism was not any one action of Edward or Despenser, but their disruption of the proper order. The necessity to simplify events to provoke popular sentiment led to a telescoping of blame. Financial, military and judicial failings, offences against the church and social order, were simplified to the result of “evil counsellors”. The evil counsellors were represented in the person of Hugh Despenser (and, to a lesser extent, his father), while his influence over Edward was, ultimately, sodomy. For example, Isabella’s proclamation against Despenser claimed that he had “usurped royal power against law and justice and his true allegiance... And we... have long been kept far from the goodwill of our said lord the King through the false suggestions and evil dealings of the aforesaid Hugh”3. The rabble-rousing sermons of Orleton, Stratford and Reynolds4 picked up the themes of transgression and misuse and explicitly applied them to Edward’s body – and, by extension, the metaphorical body of England. Preaching on texts like “I will put enmity between thee and the woman” [?ERC], “Vae terrae, cujus rex puer est”, “Cuius caput infirmum, caetera membra dolent”, “Caput meum doleo” and “Rex insipiens perdet populum suum”5, they emphasised Edward’s weakness, puerility and inability to properly manage or care for his “body”. Orleton went further and called Edward a “tyrant and a sodomite” (Haines King Edward 42), claiming that Edward had threatened in his rage to kill his wife if he should see her again (Mortimer “Sermons” 51). This attractively scandalous and memorable simplified the issues at stake almost to the point of parable. Its contrast with the complex precision of the official articles of deposition suggests the political necessity at this point of engaging popular opinion.

Most chronicles stress the role of the crowd in the decision to depose Edward. Valente writes that “for most contemporaries, the decision of the magnates, though perhaps of greatest weight, did not fully constitute the deposition. The approval of the rest of the assembly was certainly of practical utility, since it spread the burden of guilt, but it may have been considered legally necessary as well” (“Deposition and Abdication”, 865). This would account for the eagerness of the post-invasion propaganda to emphasise Despenser’s crimes against the country, and the king as its representative, contrasting to the tone of the articles against Gaveston which complained of specific acts that irritated the barons and reduced the king’s honour. That the chronicler of the Annales Paulini6 relates that Despenser was accused of “multis criminibus et transgressionibus erga populum regni Angliae” (AP 318) suggests that this tactic was generally successful. No calling earls childish nicknames for Hugh Despenser – he was to be a proper villain on a national scale.

The death and popular afterlife of Edward and each Despenser also reflected the political needs of the moment. The judgements on the Despensers detail very precisely the relation of punishment to crime. The relentless repetition of “E pur ceo qe vous... e pur ceo qe... e pur ceo...” in the judgement of the elder Despenser is matched by “qe vostre teste seit mene a Wynchestre... qe vous seietz pendu en une cote quartile de vos armes, et seint les armes destruz pur touz jours” (AP 318). The younger Despenser’s sentence uses the same formula at much greater length, ending chillingly, “Et pur ceo que vous fustes tot tempts desloyaut ... si enserrez vous debouwelle, et puys ils serront ars” (Holmes 265-66). It’s worth noting that this official judgement does not include castration, though some later chroniclers (most notably Froissart) state this did occur before he was disembowelled7. Whether the detail was thought up by his executioners or rumour-mongers, it was probably regarded as an appropriate punishment for his perceived sexual transgressions. Though this care to explain the relation of punishment to the crime is in no way unusual in passing sentences at the time, the emphasis on the almost allegorical significance of each act is striking. It suggests a care to be seen to visit the results of each crime back on the body of the perpetrator, to enact on him the physical manifestation of the damage he had done to society. In addition to satisfying visibly and bloodily the public drive for vengeance, this meticulous turning-back of each act against social order suggests a visible re-establishment of that order – despite the dubious legality of the executions themselves. The same popular urge to see an appropriate punishment visited on the physical body of the tyrant may be present in the various ‘anal rape’ accounts of Edward’s death that started to circulate in the 1330s, and eventually gained such currency as to still be accepted by many people today. Ian Mortimer (“Sermons of Sodomy”) argues that these stories both strengthened and vindicated people’s perceptions that Edward had in fact been a sodomite, and that this was the reason for his poor leadership. By comparison with the physical purity of the virgin St Edmund, the image of Edward’s body being sexually violated by another man functions as a metaphor for the damage he brought to his country in many different spheres. By the time Froissart narrated the events, the view seems to have been sufficiently widespread for him to cautiously attribute the younger Despenser’s castration to his sexual relationship with Edward.

In a culture where the story-telling (and theological explanation of day-to-day life) is saturated with allegory, symbolism and parable, what counted was the symbol, to be shaped by the needs of the moment. This was not necessary in the first half of his reign, when Gavaston’s sins largely consisted of stepping on barons’ toes and there was no real question of deposition. In fact, there never seems to have been much use of stories of sodomy in the upper levels of political events, among people who actually knew him. The barons, being closer to the action, seem to have seen a more detailed and nuanced version of events, and (being personally affected or irritated by him) found the real reasons sufficient to move against Gavaston. When it came to narrating reasons for objection to the populace and engaging their support, these nuances and personal experiences became secondary to rabble-rousing. Invoking common ideas of the king’s body and its relationship with his country helped to simplify, vilify, and turn real life into a parable.

1 Foedera, Conventiones, Literae et cujuscumque generis Acta Publica, or Rymer’s Foedera, 1066-1383, ed. Rymer, Thomas, 1704-35; ed. Clarke et al, Records Commission, London, 1816-69, cited in Weir (29).
2 Chaplais does suggest that at this time Gavaston may have been acting more or less officially as Edward’s chamberlain, and that in this case it would be logical and respectful for Edward to give the gifts into his care (Chaplais ?).
3 Foedera, cited in Weir (30).
4 Respectively the Bishops of Hereford and Winchester, and Archbishop of Canterbury.
5 Lanercost Chronicles, Historia Roffensis, cited in Haines (169-71)
6 The Annales Paulini seem to rely largely on gossip and, being the annals of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, may be taken as more or less representative of popular opinion in London at the time.
7 Alison Weir states that “until 1326, the penalty for treason had not included castration”, and suggests that this detail was included on Isabella’s vengeful instructions (243). In fact, William Wallace had been castrated as part of the formal traitor’s execution in 1306, and Simon de Montfort was castrated posthumously as a traitor in 1265. Whether other traitors had received similar punishments since, it seems to have still been unusual enough for Froissart to comment on it, and to read it as symbolic judgement for his crimes of sodomy, “even, it was said, with the King, and this was why the King had driven away the Queen on his suggestion” (44).

Incomplete bibliography because I am too lazy to redo it for this version of the draft:

Ed. Trans. Childs, Wendy R. Vita Edwardi Secundi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.
Ed. Eckhardt, Caroline D. Castleford's Chronicle, or, The Boke of Brut. Oxford: EETS, 1996.
Froissart. Ed. Trans. Brereton, Geoffrey. Chronicles. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
Holmes, G. A. "Judgement on the Younger Despenser, 1326". The English Historical Review 70 (1955): 261-267. 1955
Ed. Maxwell, Sir Herbert. Scalacronica: The Reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray. Glasgow, 1907.
Ed. Stubbs, William. Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II. Rolls series 76, 1882-3.
Ed. Thompson, E. Maunde. The chronicle of Adam of Usk, A.D. 1377-1421. Felinfach: Llanerch Enterprises, 1990.

Ed. Betteridge, Tom. Sodomy in early modern Europe. New York: Manchester UP, 2002.
Chaplais, Pierre. Piers Gaveston, Edward II's Adoptive Brother. Oxford, 1994.
Ed. Cullum, P. H. and Lewis, Katherine J. Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
Cuttino, G. P. & Lyman, T. W. "Where is Edward II?" Speculum 53 (1978), 522-3. 1978.
Ed. Dodd, Gwilym & Musson, Anthony. The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives.
Dunham, William Huse & Wood, Charles T. "The Right to Rule in England: Depositions and the Kingdom's Authority, 1327-1485". The American Historical Review 81 (1976): 738-761. 1976.
Edwards, Kathleen. "The Political Importance of the English Bishops during the reign of Edward II". English Historical Review, 59 (1944): 311-47. 1944.
Haines, R. M. The Church and Politics in Fourteenth Century England: The Career of Adam Orleton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.
Johnstone, Hilda. "The Eccentricities of Edward II". English Historical Review, 48 (1933): 264-7. 1933.
Mortimer, Ian. The greatest traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England, 1327-1330. London: Johnathon Cape, 2003.
Mortimer, Ian. The Perfect King: the life of Edward III, father of the English nation. London: Jonathon Cape, 2006.
Mortimer, Ian. "A Note on the Deaths of Edward II". Ian Mortimer: http://www.ianmortimer.com/EdwardII/death.htm April 2008. Accessed August 2008.
Powicke, Sir Maurice. "The English Commons in Scotland in 1322 and the Deposition of Edward II". Speculum 35 (1960): 1-15. 1960.
Saaler, Mary. Edward II 1307-1327. London: The Rubicon Press, 1997.
Valente, Claire. "The Deposition and Abdication of Edward II". The English Historical Review 113 (1998): 852-881. 1998.
Valente, Claire. "The "Lament of Edward II": Religious Lyric, Political Propaganda". Speculum 77 (2002), 422-439. 2002.
Weir, Alison. Isabella: She-wolf of France. London: Ballantine Books, 1995.


Alianore said...

Fascinating, Hannah, and really glad I could help you with it! Unfortunately, I'm really short of time at the moment, but I'm looking forward to sitting down later and reading this with the attention it deserves!

Ceirseach said...

Quite understood! It's not due for another two weeks, and I want to do a fair bit of rewriting on it - apart from anything else, the interlibrary loans department just delivered me New Perspectives yesterday, so now I shall have to rewrite parts of it to incorporate Mortimer and Ormrod's articles, which will be fun!

Alianore said...

That's great that you got hold of New Perspectives! I was going to offer to photocopy the articles for you, but I thought that given how far apart we live, they probably would have taken forever to reach you. ;)

Ceirseach said...

Probably! :) Thank you for the offer, though - generous thought!